When Datuk Yvonne Chia became the chief executive officer of RHB Bank in 1996 at the age of 43, she was the first woman to assume that position in a commercial bank in Malaysia. A year later, during the Asian financial crisis, she became CEO of Sime Bank too and steered both banks through rough waters.

Chia shattered the glass ceiling because she was good at what she did and had ambition.

But she may not have scaled such heights if she had not challenged norms and demanded a fair shot early in her banking career.

“I started off as an economic analyst at the Bank of America in Kuala Lumpur in 1974. About six months into my job, I told my male superior that I wanted a credit role and was told that the mandate at the bank was that credit roles were only for men.

“It was my first realisation that there were set roles for women and that I wasn’t qualified for a job because of my gender. I envied the guys as they went out to the field, met customers and went overseas for specialist training. I knew I was missing out. It took a whole year to convince the human resources department to get me an interview with the credit head in Hong Kong,” shares Chia.

Her tenacity got her the interview but it was her competency that got her the job.

“I was made to sit for some tests. I told them that if I didn’t make the grade, I would go away quietly. But, I aced the tests! Before I knew it, I was given a week’s notice to relocate to Manila, which was the regional headquarters for credit, and from there, I moved to Hong Kong,” she recalls.

After close to four decades in banking, Chia retired as managing director and CEO of Hong Leong Bank in 2013. But the straight-talking 65-year-old Chia remains “on the sidelines” of the banking industry as the non-executive chairman of Standard Chartered Bank Malaysia and sits on the boards of several public listed companies and NGOs.

And, she is a strong advocate of nurturing women for top leadership positions.

Ace up her sleeve

The secret to her success, she shares, is simply being ahead of the game – honing her expertise, working hard and doing her job well.

“Like any CEO, the acid test was my performance. I knew that I’d be judged on my performance and on whether I could produce great results. Nothing speaks better than good performance,” she asserts.

Women possess natural leadership qualities which give them an edge, says Chia.

Achievements, she says, will silence the loudest critics, break stereotypes and open doors.

“In my early days, there were moments of doubt when I encountered sexist remarks and questions about my ability to commit, being a mother of two school-going children. The only way to fight these remarks was through my performance.

“It is true that women have to over-deliver to be noticed but we also must have the conviction to stand up for what we believe in. As a trailblazer, I did my best to nurture the next generation of women leaders and show them that the best man for the job can be a woman,” she says.

Chia however points out that the workplace environment has changed. Gender bias is no longer tolerated and women who do face harassment or bias are speaking out more than ever before. Many more companies have flexible working arrangements that allow women to work from home if they need to.

But her advice for women is to never let their guard down.

“Younger women want more flexibility and while the work environment is more friendly with many incentives for women and young mothers, the reality is that companies need your time in the office as you move up the promotion chain,” she states matter-of-factly.

Claim your place

The smartest thing women can do, says Chia, is to invest in herself.

“See the future you want, hold it in your heart and mind, and make decisions that are consistent with it. Build relationships with relevant influencers as you move up the ladder but always stay true to yourself,” offers Chia.

Women, she says, possess natural leadership qualities which give them an edge – women are nurturing, supportive, organised and able to manage crisis in their stride.

“Women often don’t know they are awesome … especially we, Asian women. We don’t market ourselves well. This is changing fast but in my time, I have seen many capable women bypassed because they don’t push themselves forward. We don’t negotiate or demand as our male counterparts do,” she says.

Malaysia has yet to achieve the 30% quota of women in boardrooms but Chia points out that there has been progress.

“It’s the same story globally … the pipeline for women to get to the top is wanting. There is a long way to go. But the key is that now, we are having serious conversations about this. Boardrooms are getting very noisy now with conversations about gender inclusion. Most companies would be embarrassed now to face their stakeholders if they don’t have women in their senior management or on the board,” she says.

The key, she surmises, is for companies to have a conscious plan and nurture women, based on merit, from middle management to senior roles and finally to be on boards.

“Now that there are more women on boards, we can progress this agenda further,” she says.